The Dancing Girls of Lahore by Louise Brown
Heera Mandi - the Diamond Market - Lahore’s ancient landmark of a red light district lies in the shadow of the Badshahi Mosque built in 1674 by the last Mughal Emporer. In Mughal times however the district was celebrated for its stately courtesans whose poetry, dance and etiquettes were sought after by princes, nawabs and dignitaries. These days, however, Heera Mandi is infamous for only its nefarious activities since very few dancers have the means or inclination to study the traditional dance form of Kathak. Instead they learn their moves by copying Bollywood actresses and Heera Mandi’s current clientele, usually men from the middle and lower classes, seem to prefer this.
Today the alleys of Heera Mandi mirror any South Asian inner city. Electricity wires snake over the narrow, littered streets which come alive at night when customers saunter amidst stray dogs rooting through compost heaps, drug pushers and users, vendors hawking jasmines and red roses and eateries selling freshly prepared, hot foods.
Having partly grown up in Lahore I have visited Heera Mandi many times though always with male chaperones because good girls simply do not traverse red light areas alone, if at all, no matter how fancy-shmancy their conveyance. In the 1980’s I feasted on goat feet curry at Phajja’s, an eatery famous for this particular delicacy, our car taking up most of the width of the alley. The gelatinous payas were delicious and I remember wondering why the cook at home wasn’t as able as the ones in the forbidden zone? In the early nineties I attended a private party at the Haveli, a 17th century Mughal style mansion turned into a cultural landmark situated in the very heart of Heera Mandi. There was plenty of flirting on the dance floor which could not, I bet, have been that different from what was going on in other abodes of Heera Mandi where the elite might not congregate with such aplomb.
In the late nineties I was older and interested in things other than good food and fun times. This time when the car inched down the alley I was curious to see the seedy side of my home town. Eagerly we all gazed out to catch glimpses of the prostitutes, and we did. Heavily made up teenage girls, some petite, some very large but all wearing shiny shalwar kurta outfits, waited for customers in the street level rooms of their wooden houses, the shutter doors wide open (a closed door implied a customer inside). Ghungroos, the dark silver bells sewn onto velvet covered leather and strapped around the ankle and calve, tinkled as girls restlessly tapped their feet while waiting for customers. The musicians, in establishments where they hadn’t yet been replaced with tape or CD players, perched idly on the floor behind their instruments. As we passed a red rouged girl laughed and flicked her bleached waist length hair. Prostitutes, it seemed to me, they did what they wanted openly with no care for social constraints.
I have always envied prostitutes their freedom. After all they danced, a field I was forbidden to think of as a career even though I was promising at both ballet and kathak because ‘good’ Pakistani girls do not dance (stricter families forbid dancing even at weddings). Acting suffered the same fate because prostitutes actively pursue this field and we were too respectable ‘to do what prostitutes do’. Seemed to me being respectable was a curse in itself and so prostitution took on an aura of independence—call me naïve but prostitutes danced, acted, slept with whom they wanted, and had a certain control over their lives that married, respectable women living under strict social rules, did not seem to have. Turns out reality is a lifetime away from my fantasy.
In the tradition of Faryal Gauhar’s novel The Scent of Wet Earth in August set in Tibi Galli, a Heera Mandi alley where the lowest of the lowest whores offer their wares for mere cents, and Fouzia Saeed’s Taboo, an arresting in-depth look at the state of performing arts in Heera Mandi amidst social hypocrisy, comes Louise Brown’s The Dancing Girls of Lahore, about the lives and choices available to the district’s current inhabitants.
The Dancing Girls of Lahore is a compelling look into this traditional city of courtesans from the perspective of a white female academic (Brown is a lecturer of Sociology at the University of Birmingham). I make this distinction because, I believe, on one hand Brown has to understand the culture while simultaneously processing what she is witnessing (there are times she admits that understanding what is going on is hard because her Urdu is not proficient enough) while, on the other hand, she is subject to suppositions and therefore behavior a native Pakistani academic might not experience: Brown is considered by many of the district’s pimps a prostitute herself (indeed she has a frightening encounter with a pimp) or is thought a female pimp who supplies girls from the district to England—not a stretch given that former Heera Mandi residents, who have moved on to better life styles courtesy of wealthy, obliging patrons, act as a conduit for girls going to service in the Middle East and U.A.E.
Brown’s research spans over four years of visitations to Heera Mandi. She lived in the house of Iqbal Hussain, a famous painter (to date the only red light area artist that respectable Pakistanis will acknowledge knowing. After all Hussain’s paintings auction at Sotheby for thousands of pounds) but she spent most of her time with her research subjects: the old, ugly, deformed whores of Tibbi Gali, the transvestite community, and Maha’s family.
Most of the book concentrates on the ups and downs of Maha and her daughters. Nisha, skinny and a clumsy dancer is not sought by suitors. Furthermore she suffers from juvenile arthritis yet refuses to take her medicines, an act that infuriates Maha who doesn’t have much spare money to begin with. However Ariba, only eleven when we first meet her, invokes Maha’s entire wrath, it seems, just because she is dark skinned and it is often shocking just reading the extent to which Maha beats or abuses her mercilessly.
Indeed motherhood is not a particularly tender or affirming role for Maha and each child encounters her temper and frustrations at some point. As Brown writes ‘dancing and being beautiful define Maha: they’re what she has done since she was 12 years old.’ But Maha is no longer young or beautiful and her daughters could very well inspire her jealousy even when their success means her old age pension. Indeed all hopes of a secure future rest on the fourteen year old Nena, a talented dancer, and sexy and pretty too. These traits however do not guarantee anything.
At the turn of the millennium, at a night kite flying Basant party thrown by an industrialist at his mansion in a respectable part of town I traipsed from room to room agog at all the ‘mujras’ taking place. A famous actress was dancing chastely in the courtyard for families where even children were in attendance. In the landscaped garden, under an arbor, two prostitutes cavorted for a crowd of married couples. The real fun, however, seemed to be taking place in a room within the house where decidedly young prostitutes were dancing seductively to suggestive Bollywood songs while the audience of men salivated. The few women present looked very uncomfortable but I suppose their presence kept the men restrained and so I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a room deeper in the house where no women were present and what was going on there.
One of the dancers had me riveted. Slim but curvy with lovely features and straight, thick, black hair, she was also a terrific dancer and so, after she was done practically giving one of the men a lap dance, I wanted to tell her so and followed her out of the main room into a back room where her ilk was gathered.
Kiran was her name and up close she was even more gorgeous and I duly informed her. Thank you. Am I journalist? Do I want to take her interview for a foreign magazine? She’s going to be in film star. Oh yes. I must come to see her first film. Kiran drank a glass of water, wiped the sweat of her upper lip, smiled at me and returned to the dance floor. That was in 2003. I’m still awaiting her film, where’s she’s gone, indeed for any news of what happened to her. The Dancing Girls of Lahore fills in many gaps of what might have happened to the likes of Kiran in detailing the odds against her despite dancing talent, beauty and ambition.
Indeed Kiran could very well be Nena and Brown takes the reader through an environment replete with black magic, back stabbing, constant bitchiness and self doubt. At one point Nena and Maha are invited to entertain at a New Year’s party for the male elite and their current mistresses. At the party Nena gets much attention however, before anyone can approach her, she and Maha are packed off home at the insistence of one of the mistresses. Nena loses out on a prospective ‘husband’ just because the ‘bitch woman’ was jealous. Indeed perhaps in this atmosphere good looking girls need the kindness of strangers most.
Brown wrote her notes in diary form and the consequent narrative is written in first person although the copious sections are given headings rather than dates: Nautch Girls, Trafficked in Dubai, The Luxury of Purdah , Bitch Man. The sections at times follow no thematic order or consistency in length. Brown writes until she has said all she thinks needs to be said on a particular topic. The section Tariq and the Sweepers is one of the longer ones and Brown tells us in detail about the Christian community in Heera Mandi and Pakistan in general, how they came about, what their role is today and her personal impressions of them in a simple, yet effective prose style.
The congregation sways and claps, and the little girl next to me jiggles around the pew with excitement. She’s full of energy and barely contained. Every time I glance at her she looks up with wide, dancing eyes and a dizzy smile. Her pretty face is downy and her upper lip is covered with the tiniest beads of perspiration. She’s half singing, half shouting, and at the end of each hymn, she sighs with satisfaction and takes some deep breathes to prepare for her next musical eruption. She’s lovely and fresh and so unlike the other girls in Heera Mandi, who are miniature women at the same age.
Yet despite Brown’s explorations, in many instances I was left wanting more. For instance Brown spends a few sections on the state of the boys born in Heera Mandi where, inversely to the rest of Pakistan, a male birth is mourned while that of female is celebrated. However when it comes to ‘rescuing’ his children a father still prefers to take away his sons rather than daughters as is shown by a previous ‘husband’ of Maha’s who takes both sons but leaves his daughters Nisha and Nena behind. As for Mutazer, Maha’s son by her current ‘husband’, Brown writes of the little boy:
Mushtaq the pimp had better watch out. When Mutazer leaves the women’s world to join the public world of men in a few years time, there will be another long indulged bully lounging on the charpoys outside the pimps’ den.
About another boy, Brown stipulates that if brightness, intelligence and hard work were determinants of success in this world, Hassan would grow into an important man. However barring some miracle Hassan will either run errands all his life, sink into heroin, or if he has aspirations he’ll follow the example of other ambitious men in the area and become a drug peddler or pimp.
But Brown never really says why exactly these are the only options available to boys born here. Indeed considering that Iqbal Hussain is a successful painter I was left wondering how he got his breaks and that, if he had, then why couldn’t other boys? (or maybe they do and we just don’t hear about them because no one admits to coming from this area once they manage to leave). Also, if joining the film industry is a feasible way for the girls to get out of Heera Mandi then why not the boys?
Neither does Brown offer much insight into the lives of those prostitutes who have managed to leave Heera Mandi behind either as actresses, mistresses or even in some cases legal wives. When we do see these women (and we always see them, fittingly enough, interacting with denizens of Heera Mandi) they are always thin, well groomed and better spoken. Was learning to come across as more cultured the secret to being able to leave in the first place or did they learn these skills once they left in order to survive in a new milieu?
Never the less for all the bits left under-explored The Dancing Girls of Lahore explodes with interesting, vivid details. In Depilation: ‘Every decent nachne walli had a tub of hair removing cream and the sharpest of razors.’ In Ariba’s Boil: ‘The women, by and large, don’t shoot up or smoke heroin. They’re like Maha: they take sleeping pills and drink cough medicine.’ In Magic: ‘Mumtaz mixes her menstrual blood in Adnan’s food and drinks: he’s bewitched and enslaved to his wife’s charms.’
The two most satisfyingly handled topics are religion and social standing within the prostitute community. Heera Mandi is predominantly a community of Shias, one of the two dominant sects in Islam and Brown does a superb job of looking into how the rift historically came about, examining how prostitution and Godliness can co-exist, and how religious duties are carried out. Indeed so informative and well written are the sections devoted to the Shia rituals like the Majlis and Zuljenah that they should interest anyone merely wanting to know more about Islam.
Perhaps since Brown comes from a society rife with class distinctions she is attuned to status nuances to begin with for her complete triumph comes in her description of the social hierarchies within the communities she writes about. In Heera Mandi social mobility depends on the acquisition of VCRS, large fridges, televisions, mobiles phones, a string of rich clients and the jealousy of their neighbors (no one seems to care much about cleanliness and the rat infested squalor of Maha’s living conditions are often stomach churning). Yet, true honor and respect rests on more than merely material goods, indeed like any ‘good’ woman, no one wants to be called a slut.
It’s true that the woman upstairs is a prostitute, but how Maha can abuse her on this count must take some sophisticated intellectual gymnastics. Everyone in Heera Mandi maligns everyone else as a prostitute but when they themselves are called the same names, they cry and rage with the shame of it: all the neighbors have heard them being called a kanjri or a taxi. As if no one knows what happens in Heera Mandi, as if they’re all respectable housewives. Most have never been able to break out of a culture built upon male privileges even when they can see, in the unremitting unfairness of their lives and those of their mothers and grandmothers, how those ideas consign them to a social ghetto of stigma and shame. Ironically they damn other women caught in the same desperate situation with the very words and concepts that will be used by society to damn them.
By the end of the The Dancing Girls of Lahore I was stripped of any delusion of prostitutes, at least those in the Heera Mandi environ, having more freedom than a ‘respectable’ woman. Instead it seems as if they are trapped in a double bind. Not only are they caught in a society that demeans them but even their own community deems them dirty women or respectable based on the way they walk down the street, or place their dupattas across their chests, or look a man in the eyes. It is a vicious existence brimming with vicious circles and Brown has done a wonderful job depicting it so. The reality of it stings most when Brown wrings her hands over trying to stay professional by merely recording what she sees and not intervening and, when Brown compares the lives of Nisha and Nina to those of her own teenage daughters in England who spend their days going to school and the cinema rather than worrying about who will buy their virginity and how able a negotiator their mother will prove to be, the difference in circumstances is more than heart breaking, it is unbearable.& nd perhaps this is overriding raison d’etre of the book: how people living in unbearable conditions still manage to survive and sometimes find joy.